The very day he was cut by the high school football team, Jeff (not his real name) began using drugs.
He was devastated by his failure to make the team, which would deprive him not only of his favorite activity and a sport he had played for years, but also the camaraderie of friends/teammates and being in the middle of everything that is high school football — the Friday nights, team meals, weight training, the bull sessions after practice and so forth.
Hours after he got the news from coaches, a friend told him he knew just the thing that would make him feel better. It was the start of a drug addiction that would last years until finally, through his own determination and drug rehab, he turned his life around.
It is partly because of stories like this one that I believe our investment in high school sports, which are getting underway again with the start of football, is all wrong. I have written about this previously: It is remarkably wrongheaded that our country dumps millions of dollars into programs that directly benefit what is, relatively speaking, a handful of kids — the elite athletes of a particular school.
According to the high school activities association, the purpose of high school sports is simply participation. It’s not a farm system for colleges (if it were, then it’s an even worse investment, with only 1-2 percent of high school athletes winning scholarships, most of which are only partial grants that don't nearly cover the cost of an education).
Wouldn’t it be better if we put resources into programs that benefit the many, not the few? Wouldn’t an intramural program be vastly superior to the present system? Instead of pouring millions into a program for 12 basketball players or 80-100 football players, why not spend it for the benefit of hundreds of kids? The elite athletes could compete in clubs or leagues, which is the way it's done in Europe.
Look, every kid is going to find a “club” where he is accepted, and the club that will always grant him membership is the partying club — drug users, gangs, miscreants. They are a lot less judgmental and have fewer requirements; for that matter, they have no standards at all, at least not any commonly accepted by society. Kids must belong to some group, and school groups are a healthy choice. The investment in intramural programs would pay other dividends, including a way to combat inactivity and obesity among youths.
I know what you are thinking. Yes, Jeff might have gotten into drugs anyway, and, yes, team members certainly are not immune to the temptation of drugs. And yet I couldn’t help but think that Jeff’s inclusion on the team might have filled the empty hours and expended some excess energy, besides the other benefits I listed in the first paragraph. It might have been a different outcome if there had been a place on the team for him. I suspect it’s that way for others.
Yes, eventually these kids have to face life without sports, but the high school years are critical and formative. Get them through those years and then let them deal with the loss of sports. Yes, there are things other than sports, but, for better or worse, ours is a sports-crazy culture, and sports are what most kids want to do.
I say this as someone who has benefitted from the traditional sports system. I am the third of four straight generations of college athletes in my family. I understand fully the benefits of the current school sports system. For the last 25 years I have coached high school sports. I have seen kids who were not just pushed to the sidelines but pushed to the grandstands. They have to find other ways to fill their free time — video games, the streets, even drugs. A bored teen, one with too much free time, is trouble. Most have no illusions about their abilities; they just want to be a part of things.
Two months ago, I received an email from a reader who was responding to a column I wrote about the tremendous waste of money in college football, with dozens of schools spending millions on upgraded facilities to keep up with their rivals.
“My guess is that small programs will eventually adopt the BYU Idaho model and use their athletic facilities for the whole student body,” reader Brad Oakeson wrote, referring to that school’s abandonment of an intercollegiate athletic program in favor of an intramural program. “I would even go one step further and begin changes at the high school level. We spend an enormous amount of tax money to entertain a small percent of high school students and their parents who are good enough to compete and make a team. I would hope that some of these districts will select one or two of their high schools and use the facilities for the whole student body.”
That sounds like an idea worth considering.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org